LitheSpeed CEO Discusses Company Culture & Policies that Help in a Pandemic

by Sanjiv Augustine

Formed in 2007 and headquartered in Virginia, U.S.A., LitheSpeed is an agile professional services consultancy and training firm. Over 13 years, it evolved from two co-founders to a diverse high-performance team whose activities range from Scrum and agile training, consulting, and coaching to sales, marketing, operations, and People Ops. 

Founder and CEO Sanjiv Augustine shares his insights and the lessons his teams learned in over a decade of growth as well as in the face of recent shifts in the business world:

While what I’m about to share might sound easy in theory, in practice the growth and evolution has been very painful, and we have made several mistakes along the way. So, I am extremely proud of our team and the environment we’ve co-created over the years. We’ve acknowledged and worked hard to correct our deficiencies, just as we’ve worked hard to double down on our strengths.

Our team aspires to be agile and mission-focused from the ground up in everything we do. So, we are constantly innovating and evolving with all of our organizational structures and cultural practices. Some of the things that have helped us in getting closer to our aspirations are a work anywhere policy, flexible vacation worked out by individuals with their teams and/or clients, and a Colleague Letter of Understanding (CLOU) that forms the basis of our People Ops (formerly HR) process.

These have enabled us to build a phenomenally high-performance team that is driven by Scrum and agile ethics, and that truly enjoys working together. We have seen strong financial performance in the past, grown a naturally diverse workforce, and we have garnered high customer satisfaction. In the pandemic era, we are working hard on new business innovations, even as we face a decline in business in the current recession.

How to Prevent Abuse and Build Trust

The toughest part of this is that we have had to develop the courage and the structure to deal quickly with abuses of our very open and trusting culture. Since we were not HR people ourselves, we had a very tough time initially with handling issues of non-performance, non-alignment, and work avoidance. While we have never tolerated sexism, racism, or any other form of discrimination, we had to develop our own ways of handling team members who were not motivated to work in a self-managed way, who were dishonest, or who simply were not interested in working as a part of our team.

Key Practices for Managing Abuse and Building Trust:

  1. Create a structured, mentor-driven onboarding process. Spend time sharing elements of culture with new hires for rapid alignment.

  2. Incorporate honest and empathetic techniques from Radical Candor into the feedback process to give both praise and criticism. 

  3. Implement a three-month check-point, in which we carefully evaluate cultural fit, and part ways as amicably as possible if things are not working out.

  4. A shortlist of things that trigger immediate termination, including criminal, sexist, racist and other unacceptable behavior that adversely impact our team, our clients, or our business. Yes, these things exist, even on agile teams, and one must learn to deal with them quickly and decisively.

A Fair Exchange: Extreme Autonomy, Mentorship & Organizational Alignment

Over the years, we have stayed faithful to the underlying Scrum and agile principles for self-managing teams. We’ve also learned that in exchange for the extreme autonomy we offer our team members, we need to ensure that that autonomy is balanced with alignment with our organization’s mission, strategy, and business. 

So, over the years, we have developed a mentoring program for general alignment, and also a coaching program if things go sideways. The coaching program has enabled us to part ways more quickly and in a more congenial fashion with folks who are not aligned with the way we work. We are now in the process of revamping the mentoring program, because we recognize it needs work, and it is crucial to keeping the awesome folks we have happy and fulfilled.

We’ve realized that situational leadership is key to meeting people where they are and building on their unique capabilities. Some of the main lessons we’ve learned here are:

  1. The old-timers at LitheSpeed have learned the ropes long ago, and are completely self-managing. Our mentoring structure for seasoned veterans is mostly peer feedback, discussion, and joint discovery.

  2. For those newer to the company, we have understood that they need a clearer idea of career progression and help with developing their careers. These team members need regular mentoring from someone who can be a role model and coach to them.

  3. As complete anathema to agile ideals as it may be, we realize that some people need closer, direct supervision and to ensure that they do not disrupt the overall self-managing culture.

  4. Conflict management is critical, and we have based our coaching program on The Empowerment Dynamic to help shift mindset and behavior when drama and conflict arise.

Besides Morning Star’s radical self-management as inspiration, our approach has also been influenced by Lazlo Bock’s Work Rules, and incorporates some of Bock’s key principles such as: believing that people are fundamentally good, using groups of peers for hiring, raises and promotions; and making all goals public in the form of Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). 

Amanda Geary, our vice president of PeopleOps, Audrey Scheere, our vice president of marketing and special projects and Bob Payne, our senior vice president of agile coaching have developed and driven many of the practices covered above. My role has been to clear all techniques in advance with our business attorneys, help run management experiments, and then establish the successful ones as corporate policy. I have been pleasantly surprised that all the policies we’ve evolved are perfectly aligned with and support local laws. 

In closing, we’re always hiring — mostly in a contract capacity right now — so if you know some exceptional performers who want to work at LitheSpeed, view our open positions here: https://lithespeed.com/careers/ and/or send an email to jobs@lithespeed.com

 

Sanjiv Augustine

Founder and CEO of LitheSpeed, LLC, author of Managing Agile Projects and Scaling Agile: A Lean JumpStart, Augustine is an entrepreneur, industry-leading agile and lean expert, author, speaker, management consultant, and trainer. With 30 years in the industry, he has served as a trusted advisor to executives and management at leading firms including: Capital One, The Capital Group, CNBC, Comcast, Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, General Dynamics, HCA Healthcare, The Motley Fool, National Geographic, Nationwide Insurance, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), Walmart and Samsung. Sanjiv is the past Chair of the Agile Alliance’s Agile Executive Forum and the founder and moderator of the DC Lean+Agile Meetup. He is also the founder of the Agile Leadership Academy. Sanjiv is a Certified Scrum Master, Certified Scrum Product Owner, Certified Scrum Professional, Certified CAL Educator and Certified Scrum Trainer, and he also holds the PMI-ACP, DSDM Atern, and ICC-ATF certifications.